A Birmingham crowd protesting white supremacist terror toppled a statue honoring Charles Linn, who fought with the Confederate Navy to keep black folks enslaved in perpetuity. On the campus of the University of Mississippi—where the sports mascot until 2003 was a Confederate soldier character called “Colonel Reb” and “Dixie” was the fight song for another 13 years—a protester defaced a Confederate statue. Along Richmond’s Monument Avenue—a street virtually lined with statuary tributes to traitorous defenders of the Confederacy—demonstrators tagged statues of Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis with messages including “Fuck Cops” and “No More White Supremacy.”
In the same city, protesters set fire to the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the elite white ladies’ group that erected the majority of Confederate monuments in this country.
The Confederacy is rightfully burning, literally and figuratively, though never quite fast enough—and elected leaders are slowly following the lead of protesters and finally taking down Confederate monuments that should have come down long ago.
In the wake of George Floyd’s extrajudicial lynching, as cops continue to openly enact state-supported white supremacist violence, it’s fitting that protesters are targeting Confederate monuments, this country’s most visible, literally tangible tributes to white supremacist terror. Those memorials, erected after the Great Betrayal of 1877—when the North abandoned black folks to a white south affronted by black enfranchisement and citizenship—are projections of absolute white authority and racist intimidation cast in bronze and stone.
The mere imagined threat of black political personhood, in moments of the most minimal black civil rights gains, so enraged the white racist imagination that it was not satisfied with the viciousness of Jim Crow laws and racist vigilante violence. To reinforce those terrors, they erected Confederate statues, menacing figures strategically placed to definitively mark public spaces, particularly statehouses and courthouses, as dominions of white supremacy.
And no one was more effective at the task of putting up those white power symbols than the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Ku Klux Klan fangirls from way back who promoted school textbooks lauding the KKK and even built a statue to their terrorist heroes.
For more than 100 years, Confederate markers have stood as signifiers of the wistful nostalgia for black enslavement that remains embedded in the white American psyche—the longing for a time when whiteness was even less accountable for the immoral damage it inflicts on black lives in the interest of maintaining white power. In recent years, slavery apologists such as the Daughters and the Sons of Confederate Veterans have fought to prevent the removal of those monuments, often with the backing of powerful and monied neo-Confederates who work in courthouses and statehouses with Confederate markers on their grounds. They’ve quietly filed lawsuits and crafted litigation that make it nearly impossible to take Confederate monuments down.
By the SPLC’s last count, there are still somewhere around 780 Confederate markers—mostly in the South but also in places including Seattle, Rhode Island and the South Side of Chicago—celebrating the defenders of a government whose vice president declared “its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
From the moment they were erected, even when facing the threat of white terror violence under Jim Crow, black folks have been fighting to take these monuments down. The Confederacy should’ve burned long ago.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans website claims that Confederates were fighting for the “preservation of liberty and freedom” and ”their belief in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” The UDC site meanwhile notes the group is “grieved that certain hate groups have taken the Confederate flag and other symbols as their own” and that it “denounces any individual or group that promotes racial divisiveness or white supremacy.” If you could overlook all the ahistorical whitewashing and gobbledygook in those messages, which they take great acrobatic pains to ensure you do, it might seem like these celebrants of insurrectionists would be applauding uprisings of citizens against the tyranny of anti-constitutional oppression by the state.
Instead, recent correspondence between members of the SCV and UDC actually includes the suggestion that the protesters should be charged “with hate crimes.” It’s hard to know where to start with the lack of self-reflection in that statement, but suffice it to say they only seem to support “rebellions” in support of white control over black lives. But we already knew that.
On Monday, one day after the Birmingham protesters successfully tore down the Linn statue but failed to overturn the nearby Confederate Soldiers and Sailors monument—a 52-foot-tall stone obelisk—Mayor Randall Woodfin had the monument dismantled. (The removal fell on a state holiday glorifying Confederate president Jefferson Davis, a “celebration” that should also be removed.) In Alexandria, Virginia, fearing protesters might cause harm to the monument, the UDC took down a Confederate soldier statue slated for removal in July. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett promised to remove a statue honoring Confederate soldiers, calling it “ nothing more than a painful reminder of our state’s horrific embrace of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago.”
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered the removal of a Richmond statue of Robert E. Lee, and Mayor Levar Stoney announced plans “to remove all Confederate monuments on Monument Avenue.” In Charlottesville, the plantation-money heirs and Sons of Confederate Veterans fighting to keep up the same statues that drew murderous neo-Nazis to the city in 2017, have beat a partial legal retreat. And the Marines announced a complete ban on the Confederate flag on its military bases.
All it took to muster that political will—as with the uptick in removals that followed the murders of nine black parishioners in Charleston, and the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville—was yet another racist murder and days of footage showing cops indiscriminately beating protesters. At least this country is consistent.
And still it’s not enough, obviously. There are still 10 U.S. Army bases named for Confederates who fought against the U.S. Army. A bunch of southern states continue to celebrate the birthdays of Confederate leaders, while Alabama and Mississippi have “King-Lee” day, a very stupid holiday mashup “honoring” both Martin Luther King and Robert E. Lee. The hundreds of Confederate monuments that remain are still doing the work they were erected to do, namely, overwriting history with white lies and standing for a white supremacist future.
White power won’t magically disappear when all those racist monuments do—though with the way these folks fight to keep them standing, it seems like they’re worried it might—but taking down odes to the people who waged war to keep black folks in bondage is the absolute bare minimum. Hopefully, toward that most basic end, the Confederacy will continue to burn. Along with the lie that its leaders deserve to be honored for defending a dishonorable cause.